Having not posted on here in over a year, it feels good to write again.
Yesterday, Microsoft announced and demoed a surprising, radical new project called HoloLens. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go the Microsoft site and glance at it to make the rest of this make sense. The essence behind HoloLens is a goggle-like device you wear over your eyes that projects holograms augmented into your perception of reality – wirelessly. Technology like this is significant for a few reasons that may not be immedately apparent when looking at the demos they have provided. This technology today, itself may look a little socially isolating, may just be a necessary stepping stone to what we will soon know as the ‘present’ of computing.
As much as it surprises me to say this to myself about Microsoft, but it’s a little refreshing to see Microsoft show off this kind of technology and not Google.
Close Your Eyes
Close your eyes. Now imagine what the future looks like to you. You may be picturing your favorite science-fiction movie like Minority Report or Blade Runner. Usually there are screens everywhere. Computing is so cheap we can make displays out of and integrate them into almost anything – giant displays on the side of a building, displays integrated into walls, clothing, or other materials.
Maybe this is the case. But what if the future of this functional reality is just a little bit closer than that? Yes, maybe we will have screens everywhere, but what if only you could see those screens? What if the requirement for those screens to be physically present were removed? You look to your left and right – there are holographic screens projected everywhere just like you imagined the future.
Too Much Information?
If the future has screens everywhere, would you not simply be overwhelmed with the information being presented on those screens? As a thought-application of this, let’s imagine we are driving down the road in our personal automobile. A virtual screen is “projected” over most every surface within eye’s-reach. As a direct translation of the current physical configuration of your car, you may immediately imagine your speed or navigation being on these virtual screens – maybe even the current music playing or your calendar from your phone.
Let’s glipse the in-car experience in a different light, since many engineering constraints of the automobile driver’s UX paradigm has completely shifted: The A-pillar is replaced with a projection of what lies just behind it. Your car door becomes transparent just like your A-pillar to reveal a small motorcycle in your blind spot. Your vehicle’s on-board radar (something already existing on some vehicles) is pulling double-duty in a massive snow-storm to project a better picture of the cars that lie just out of your visible range. The near-future of driving may not be “more screens” with useless, distracting information – it may actually be an extension of your reality by bypassing the physical constraints we already have on our world, making us more aware by providing more natural, easily digestible information.
Fighter pilots have been using a variant of this technology in their helmets for awhile now in order to provide them with more relevent, contextual information while piloting a $100M aircraft. The purpose of such a technology is to provide someone with more information in such a way that is easy to process for the user. Something like this is a brand-new area of user-experience for the everyman.
One of the applications shown in the demo videos was in content creation. A designer sits next to a computer with a holographic projection of their work sitting next to them on the desk. They then walk over to a 1:1 scale model of their work to feel the presence of their work as they walk around it, tweaking parameters as if they were using their 3D CAD software.
Is this not the natural progression of where computing, content creation and design should be headed? Technology should enable humans to create, not get in the way with IDEs, keystrokes or even screens. This is exactly what car designers do now with clay models and styrofoam, just on a more physical, tedious scale.
Tomorrow’s Computing Today?
Brett Victor has a mission to explore and guide the future of “technology” as it applies to human interaction. In his talk, “The Humane Representation of Thought”, he talks about the current state of programming (and maybe even computing in general) being “inhumane”. As a programmer, I can’t disagree with this: A human being sits in front of a computer for 8-10 hours a day, entering individual characters into a computer telling it very explicitly what to do – basically glorified data entry with a dash of creationism and creativity. These characters get translated into all of the things we use everyday we know generically as software. Everything from text editors to 3D CAD software – all built the same.
Brett explores how future technologies should integrate with human interactions to make the experience richer and more engaging, not less engaging. This is something that Microsoft’s HoloLens is definitely a step toward – at least in the richness and interaction factors. We still don’t get any of the physical feedback mechanisms that, for instance, paper and pencil have. “The Humane Representation of Thought” is an excellent watch if you have time, as well as his talks “Drawing Dynamic Visualizations” and “Stop drawing dead fish” since they both relate to human-computer interaction and the way we should think about computing in the future.
“But I Would Never Wear That In Public”
I know many people are looking at the device saying “it’s so ugly and unweildy, I would never wear this in public” or “That thing is worse than Google Glass”. Many have even pointed and laughed at pictures of a group of Microsoft guys using HoloLens. I don’t really think that’s the point of the HoloLens. They do indeed look a little bit ridiculous. I don’t believe this initial application or device is meant to be used as an everyday wearable that you walk down the street with, or even wear around the office full-time. You could, but you would probably be treated in much the same way those who wore Google Glass were. As a computing correlary, you don’t walk around your office or home 100% with your laptop staring at it everywhere you go. I know this is not 100% translatable, but I don’t think the intent with v1 is to be a daily personable wearable.
The initial application of this device is going be more along the lines of “computing augmentation”. These are the experience “hacks” that directly translate your current computing environment and paradigms into your physical world, just like some of Microsoft’s own demos show off. This includes the scenarios where a designer is creating a physical model, a researcher is exploring mars, gaming applications and even the integration of other physical people in your augmented world with you (think remote collaboration).
Another set of immediate applications includes “piloting” activities (driving a motorcycle or car, driving heavy machinery, etc) or sports such as skiing or mountain biking.
Subsequent, evolved applications of this technology will depend on the v2+ physical devices that are created to project the holographs. This is when you might could get into the everyday integration of HoloLens as a personal device if the technology is able to get out of the way enough to enable this. It is at this point in which we will see applications of holographic technology used in ways we can’t easily grasp now since our minds don’t yet build products or applications that use this technology natively.
Microsoft as the Future?
With all this said, does this mean that Microsoft will be helping to lead technology into their perception of the future – the same company that released Windows 8 and created the Windows Phone 7 Pro Plus Edition? This could be a new era of computing, or could it be another Nintendo Virtual Boy? With all of the money and attention being poured into products like LeapMotion, Oculus and MagicLeap, it’s going to be difficult to argue that our future is not in some way tied to integrated computing.
We should also take note from Brett Victor, to shape new innovations not to let technology dictate how the future will look, but guide and humanize future technology in a way that will better our lives and connect us with others. If this isn’t the future, this is at least a glimpse down the path of the future of computing.